The struggle for supremacy: warring states and the first great philosopher

The first thousand years of recorded Chinese history, from about 1200BCE to 200BCE, is a story of consolidation and conquest, largely thanks to the combined impact of rice, silk and iron. The Kings of Shang, and then the Zhou, who took charge in 1046BCE following victory at the Battle of Muye, used the Yellow River as their main corridor of power. They claimed that their power came directly from heaven. They meant it: their style of leadership was symbolised by an axe, usually embellished with hungry smiles and devouring teeth.

In the end, their capital Hào (near the present-day city of Xi'an) was sacked by barbarian invaders, and in 722BCE the Zhou had to move their headquarters further east to Luoyang (in the present-day Henan Province). Central power rapidly fell apart and a series of smaller states, some with rulers calling themselves kings, emerged to fill the gap.

By 500BCE these states had been consolidated into seven major powers, each vying for the prize of a united China, with its promise of almost infinite supplies of food, wealth and power. Over the next 300 years, it was the military struggle for supremacy between these states, known as the Warring States Period, which finally created the platform for uniting all China.

During this period a number of different philosophies evolved, called the "Hundred Schools of Thought". Wise men and thinkers wandered from court to court, advising kings and nobles on how they might live justly, rule wisely and advance the progress of their kingdoms. One such man was Kongzi, later known to the Western world as Confucius. Tradition says he lived from about 551BCE to 479BCE. His legacy lives on in societies across the Far East, from Japan and China to Korea and Vietnam.

Kongzi was a minister of justice in the state of Lu. One day, aged about 55, he decided to quit his job and go on a trek around the kingdoms of northern China to preach his message of the right way to lead a virtuous life and the best way to rule a kingdom. Confucius sought a system for living that could restore unity, because he thought that the world was descending into an abyss of internal power struggles and military confrontations. He taught that obedience, correct behaviour and good etiquette were ways in which order in society could be restored. A good king would set a good example to his people, and good subjects were bound to obey.

What Confucius didn't concern himself with is almost as revealing as what he actually taught. His philosophy has no place for gods, no afterlife, no discussion or consideration of a divine soul or spirit. In a way, Confucius developed the first godless theory of personal and political behaviour. Family loyalty, respect for older people and reverence for the past were his three pillars of social virtue.

A flavour of his philosophy can be captured by some of his most famous sayings. He hated war and confrontation, had a love of history, and was always pragmatic: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves"; "Study the past as if you would define the future"; "The only constant is change..."

A number of great scholarly works are attributed to Confucius, although it is far from clear whether he actually wrote any of them. For almost 2,000 years Chinese civil servants, lawyers, military officers and other officials were required to study these texts, called the Four Books and Five Classics, in order to qualify to serve the state. This emphasis on education, teaching, conformity and obedience is still a hallmark of the enduring society that is China today.

Confucius's message of order and peace was in danger of being lost in the noise of war and battle that consumed Chinese life until the year 221BCE, when the country was unified by the supreme triumph of the state of Qin. The story of the rise of Qin – from which the name "China" comes – is as bloodcurdling as it is brutal.